Grigory Ryzhakov – Russian Writer

Characters and Les Miserables

West End’s Queen’s Theatre at night, London, UK

In my opinion (and not only mine) every story is driven by characters. If characters are flat or sketchy, the story will suffer. Best characters are those you want to be friends, lovers or maybe worst enemies with, those who leave you restless and sneak into your dreams.

I’m not always a work-obsessed nerd, I do go out occasionally to see what’s happening around.  So recently I went to see a musical called Les Miserables in London’s West End. The musical is based on a Victor Hugo novel of the same title. It’s been running for 32 years and is still a tremendous success. This year it received the prestigious Lawrence Olivier award as the best musical of 2012.
I loved every bit of it. The music was lofty, the sound in Queen’s Theatre  – amazing, the voices  impressive and the entire production left me to crave for more, and that was after nearly a three-hour long show.
But the most important reason why I liked it were the characters of the story. Hugo presented a panorama of human souls in his novel – ranging from hilarious villains the Thénardiers couple to the major character of Jean Valjean who is virtuous as a saint. The child characters of Cosette and Gavrosh are impossible not to adore, while the troubled and duty-driven Javert left me with contradictory feelings, – I couldn’t see him as a villain or a protagonist or a side-kick. Yet I felt sorry for him. And how can one fail to sympathize to Thénardiers’ daughtér Éponine: though she was brought up by immoral parents and fell in love with a person who can’t reciprocate – she stays brave and goodhearted.

I mean it’s my fiftieth blog post (jubilee, yay!) and I mean to go a level deeper than this generic sentiment. Take on Éponine again. Why doesn’t she simply kill the bloke she’s crazy about when she finds out he’s all over another woman? I would (just kidding). Why does one love possessively, while the other – in the all-giving way? Why does Éponine, an offspring of vile and sinister parents, behave unlike them? Maybe I’ll get my answers from Samantha Barks (yes, Les Mis is about to hit the cinemas later this year). But you get my point, don’t you? It’s so exciting to observe inner struggle and emotional battles of amazing characters.

It could all be different  if written nowadays. Imagine Jean Valjean who is an honest werewolf, wrongly accused of  marauding the Champs Elysees’ meat market. Having escaped from an Azkaban-like facility he falls in love with Fantine, who’s a  witch but a good person. Together they try to escape from the chief police officer and the evil vampire Javert, it all ends up in the the battle involving flying fireballs and the Eifel Tower collapsing on Fantine and other bystanders,  hitting the ground with a thud, which causes Gondwanaland to split into separate continents (that’s a bit of paleo-geology for you, you lucky pop). Anyway, grieving Jean Valjean escapes to the sewage. If it reminds you of Bane, you should know that it wasn’t Hugo who plagiarized Batman. I have forgotten to mention that escaped to the Heaven Fantine has a daughter called Cosette, a little girl, able manipulate objects in the air by levitation; she is adopted by her uncle and aunt Thenardiers, a pair of shape-shifters, who force the girl to aid them in stealing artifacts from the Louvre … and so on. Does it sound like a box office flop?

The modern story-telling often relies on action gimmicks and impressive visuals sacrificing the character development.  No wonder, many current blockbusters feel sterile and can’t stir emotions in spectators.  Authentic characters, quirky and unique yet the ones that people can relate to,  is what  gives a story its gravity. And that’s why Les Miserables is a good example of how an old classics can keep its universal appeal to audiences.




Your brilliant thoughts


  • Ashen

    Now you’ve done it, you inspired me to finally go and see Les Miserables on stage. And the trailer of the film looks good too.

    • GrigoryRyzhakov

      I love musical adaptations to screen, I dream a dream of creating a musical all by myself, I have a sketch of a libretto already )

  • Schmidt, Custodial Engineer

    The only characters I could identify with was Javert and Eponine. I thought the students were reckless and evil, their picking a fight in a crowded city felt akin to a terrorist act, didn’t even warn people or clear the streets of civvies and I’ve seen even Iraqi insurgents do that.

    Jean’s character in a habitual thief and creepy, if he’d had honor he would have had some one else take in that girl, she’d be safer not raised by convicted felon on the lamb, but just like with the silver he takes and keeps things he has no right to. When the priest tried to give him the silver and he accepted, I thought I’m done with you dude, he uses it for himself hoping he could somehow help other people, but that was a terrible longshot, he always tries to excuse his immorality, and is only compelled to action by guilt not bravery or honor,

    Also, stealing bread in a time where food shortages were rampant is still a crime, its not victimless, and order needs to be maintained. Look at how bad americans are on black Friday, like the running of the human bulls in Wal-Mart, now imagine they actually need that stuff, they’d trample and kill people unless examples are made.

    Through out you see how brutal and cannibalistic the mob are, it shows the evil inherit in human nature, the mindlessness of the mob and the sad truth that the common man can be as cruel a tyrant as any king. That mankind needs order and honor, not unearned redemption and unreasoned emotion. Men like Javert hold the line, the others think they can blurr it and cross as they please, if does so, its chaos, blood runs in the streets.

    Eponine was the only positive heroic female character, I felt sorry for her, because she overcame evil being raised by the two criminal tramps, and had bravery and moral sense, just wrong place wrong time.

    In the end, I wish Javert had pulled the trigger, I can’t see what’s so good about the other guys, cuz they seem evil to me.

    • GrigoryRyzhakov

      Thank you for sharing your opinion, Schmidt.

      You could be right about Jean if he was a real men, because one cannot see inside someone’s soul. Yet with Hugo’s Valjean we have a well-written and explained book character, so we know what the author wanted to tell us. It’s a story of Jean Valjean’s redemption through love and self-sacrifice.

      Jean could’ve killed Javert if he was a bad man.
      Jean could’ve abandoned Eponime if he was a bad man.
      I think he was driven by love and duty not guilt.

      Hugo portrays flawed characters who pay for their mistakes, yet the only fundamentally evil characters are Thenardiers in there.

      “That mankind needs order and honor, not unearned redemption and unreasoned emotion.” This is all good, but mankind is made of weak people, so it’s never going to happen as an idyll. Emotion is irrational and often unreasoned, it’s a part of human nature.

      Again with “unearned redemption” you go against what the author told us. This may be your opinion of the story in the film, but it’s not what the book is about I think.

      In terms of your remark – those French students as terrorists – you perhaps forget what the time it was. These people were fighting for their civil rights, June Rebellion in 1832 was a milestone, of the pillars our Western democracy was built upon.

      France, 1832 is not US nowadays – different mentality, different civilisation values.

      Interestingly, this novel inspired the Confederate Army soldiers during American Civil war, those guys even called themselves “Lee’s Miserables” after their commander Robert Lee.

      • Schmidt, Custodial Engineer

        Thanks for the explanation and reply, I only just saw the movie, I haven’t read the book, though the little historical details inside might be worth it.

        It was just my opinion, I had a hard time trying to understand how everyone else saw it, since I see things skewed or just differently, obviously in the wrong way.

        and I get they’re fighting for their cause but the escalation of force came from their end that time, they seemed to have no realistic achievable military objective, also urban combat causes heightened civilian casualties, if they chose to fight in the streets they should clear out the civilians first, some local sunni insurgents would even do that in Iraq before initiating ied ambush, though in the city, its creepy when you see the streets clear, alerts you though, that’s the drawback for them, switch routes, had some respect for them, the others wouldn’t do that…. but yeah, back to france, shouldn’t have said terrorist in reference to the students, a name probably more appropriate for the reign of terror than this uprising, …names just illusions anyway,

        …but their battle plan sounds as if it would cause many civilian casualties of their own population in street to street fighting, and generally seemed a poorly thought out plan, hasty and seemed like one with out any command and control, communications, predetermined sectors of fire, or lacking any kind of preparation for protection of the populace, establishment of casualty collection points, etc.. it seemed reckless, despite any ideals, to escalate force and waste lives at an risky position like that, but it happens, and its easy to say things to the dust from the future chair… my opinion anyway, been awake too long… Thanks for answering

        I may have to look more into the French revolution, clear up my ignorance a little, I only remember more of a negative connotations from the early period, guillotines an such. Lee’s miserables? that’s a terrible unit name, lol…pshh rebels. I wish I could like Les Miserbles more it has some good characters, I’ll try to learn from that, but the theme’s not something I get, though I know what he means.